Gods and Pathogens

What does piety have to do with public health? In several recent rulings concerning restrictions on in-person religious services during the pandemic, the Supreme Court has repeatedly confronted the question, but it is hardly a new one. Humans have probably been asking similar questions for as long as they have clustered together in sufficient densities to sustain the spread of pandemic pathogens: which is to say, for as long as they have been recording their history. Pandemics and piety are sometimes opposed protagonists in well-known artifacts of that history. Homer’s Iliad opens with the god Apollo, angered by the Greek king Agamemnon’s mistreatment of his priest, driving “the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished.” Until the prophets were consulted and the god appeased, “the corpse fires burned everywhere.” And in the Hebrew Bible it is not only the Egyptians who are punished by plagues. When the Israelites

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